MANCHESTER — After scores of parents raised concerns earlier this year about the air quality at Manchester Elementary School, Regional School Unit 38 officials spent more than $100,000 to improve the conditions at the aging school.

“We followed the plan we developed with parents and the facilities committee,” Superintendent Donna Wolfrom said. “We’ve done what we said we were going to do.”

During the summer, the district installed unit ventilators in 12 classrooms that didn’t have them, and according to several parents who spoke to the Kennebec Journal, the air quality has improved.

Craig and Stephanie Garofalo’s daughter Lydia was sick several times during the last school year. Her symptoms included wheezing, coughing and headaches. Stephanie Garofalo said Lydia had been sick within the first few weeks of school the past few years, but it has been different this year.

“She hasn’t missed a day of school this year,” Stephanie Garofalo said. “(The changes) have been extremely positive this year.”

Lydia’s mother said her daughter had been to see a doctor on numerous occasions, although she acknowledged that there is no way to say definitively whether elevated amount of mold spores or dusty classrooms at Manchester Elementary caused Lydia’s illnesses.

“There aren’t any tests that could be done or any way to prove it,” Stephanie Garofalo said, but added, “It would seem likely that it was making a big difference.”

She said she hasn’t spent a lot of time at the school this year, but she’s heard from parents that the school, which opened in 1952, is the cleanest they’ve ever seen it. Craig Garofalo said he’s happy his daughter has been in school all year, and he said she seems like a different child compared to the same time last year.

“It’s nice to know she is in a safe place and somewhere where we can feel good about what she’s doing during the day,” he said.

The school first came under the parents’ scrutiny in January, but the problems had started several months earlier. According to an email from late October 2016 obtained by the Kennebec Journal, the school nurse alerted the administration about a bad smell in the basement. Air quality testing was completed Nov. 3, 2016, and the first testing report was sent to the district Nov. 15, 2016. The district’s former director of operations and transportation was told there was “no immediate risk,” though subsequent testing showed elevated mold spores. The basement was remediated twice and several classrooms were cleaned thoroughly.

While most parents were concerned about the rooms’ cleanliness and safety, a number of them considered the way the district communicated the matter to parents to be a bigger problem.

Wolfrom sent a letter to parents Nov. 28, 2016, 13 days after the district received the first air quality report, stating the classrooms were dusty; but the letter didn’t mention any mold in any classroom. It wasn’t until after the basement was remediated and the classrooms were cleaned last December that the school officially acknowledged the presence of mold in the classrooms.

Since then, district officials and parents developed a communication plan, and Wolfrom said the district has followed that plan. She said she hasn’t heard any complaints from anyone.

“We’ve done what we said we’d do, and I hope (the parents) recognize that,” the superintendent said.

Jeremy Payne was one parent who was an outspoken critic of the district’s communication and transparency. He said that has improved considerably and he is encouraged by the transparency and communicative nature of the administration.

“There is now consistent and sustained outreach to the community to let parents and staff know what is going on and what the plan is, as well as periodic updates,” Payne said last week by email.

The school faced more problems in late March when a teacher complained of a smell in her classroom. A check of the room yielded no obvious cause, though Wolfrom said a pair of wet boots was found in the corner of the room where the smell was coming from.

The room’s carpet and air quality were tested, and after the teacher complained of headaches, the decision was made to test the room’s carbon dioxide levels. The report from Air Quality Management showed no mold problem in the carpet or the classroom in general and that the carbon dioxide levels didn’t present a safety hazard.

The formal report given to parents April 10 showed carbon dioxide levels well below OSHA standards but slightly above the no-longer-used American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers comfort standards.

As for the school’s future, Wolfrom — who is leaving to become superintendent in Cape Elizabeth after the school year ends — said there are no plans to replace the building. The school board’s strategic plan is from 2012-2017, so it will begin developing a new plan soon. The district also has contracted with an architect to do a needs assessment of the entire district in preparation for a potential bond offering.

“We have some roofs that need repair and several other large projects that need to be done,” Wolfrom said. “It’s something we’ve talked about for several years, and that process has started.”

Craig Garofalo is on the district’s building committee. He said there are four old schools in the district, and he suggested commissioning a study to look at how much maintenance each school needs.

“Does it make sense to keep investing dollars in each one of them or look at a more optimistic plan of getting them all put together?” he said.

Manchester Elementary, Garofalo said, is looking at something between $1 million and $1.5 million to replace the heating and air conditioning systems. If other schools need similar maintenance for a similar cost, that money could go toward the cost of a new school, he said; but he added that he neither favors nor opposes replacing Manchester Elementary. Instead, he said, it’s simply worth a conversation.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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